Macon's financial picture takes turn for worse

Macon’s financial picture appeared to grow more dire Thursday, when city officials reported that March sales tax proceeds were down 40 percent from the same time period in 2008.

The decrease follows February collections that came 31 percent short of the mark set a year prior. In total, the two months’ decline has meant a $1.2 million drop in revenue compared to the previous budget cycle, and some officials fear it could represent the start of a protracted period of sales tax losses.

Revenues are reported about two months after they are collected. The final check from Bibb County’s special purpose local option sales tax is supposed to arrive in the city today, and officials expect it will be similarly diminished.

City Council Appropriations Chairman Mike Cranford, opening budget hearings Thursday, said everything in the proposed spending plan for fiscal 2010 is on the table and facing substantial cuts “if we’re going to survive the next year.”

“We’re broke,” he said. “We just ain’t admitted it yet.”

Cranford also has asked the administration to look at encouraging employees who are eligible for retirement to leave their jobs. He plans to entice them by introducing legislation that cuts off health insurance benefits for future retirees who are not gone in the next 90 days. Macon currently pays health insurance claims for both its current and retired workers, and the rising costs are “bankrupting” the city, he said.

Chief Administrative Officer Thomas Thomas said administration officials are putting together a plan that takes Cranford’s wishes into account and investigating the savings it could achieve. He said nearly 10 of the city’s department heads — who are among the highest salaried — are eligible for retirement.

“It’s real,” he said. “We’re trying to keep people working without having to do salary cuts.”

Mayor Robert Reichert’s budget currently proposes city employees lose their pay for all of the nine holidays they are allotted in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. And nonessential personnel — everybody except sworn police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers — would be furloughed for a half-day each pay period, or one day per month. It would generally amount to an 8 percent loss in salary.

Council members have vowed to look for other alternatives. Cranford has already proposed delaying the furloughs until January and then instituting them for a full day each pay period. That at least gives workers more time to prepare financially, he has argued. Other council members have also expressed interest in retirements as an alternative to furloughs.

“Retiring employees is a way of avoiding layoffs,” Appropriations Committee member Nancy White said. “In many ways, it’s a win-win.”

At budget hearings Thursday, the committee began its initial review of individual city departments. Among those it took a look at were the mayor’s office and the council office.

In both cases, the committee made some cuts, taking $16,000 from the nearly $900,000 budgeted for Reichert’s office and about $14,000 from the more than $650,000 council budget. Generally, the money was removed from line items that pay for travel and training expenses. Budget hearings resume today at 3 p.m.

To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.